How 500 Square Feet of Earth Changed My Life
A tiny Brooklyn garden was enough to make me set aside a lifelong dream of having an old house in the country with a big yard
I moved to Manhattan in the 1980s, having visited enough times to give the Upstate girl in me the confidence that she could handle a few years in the big city. My college boyfriend and I would get our careers off the ground, but then, of course, we would move away.
While I didn’t know exactly where we’d go, I knew what life would look like: a large, hippie-chic old house in the “country,” with a community of friends baking their own bread and breeding dogs and doing volunteer work and maybe someone would have a kiln? We’d throw late-night parties in our big yards and eat food picked fresh from the garden. The pace of life would be slow, and people would talk about stuff besides work — you know, not New York City.
Well, you can probably guess what happened. It’s 29 years later, and I’m still in the city. But were it not for 500 square feet of fertile earth, I might not be.
Clinging to a Dream
The first part of the dream to go was the college beau. What we needed at 22 had already changed a lot by 27, and we amicably went our separate ways. I married a guy who didn’t drive, which threw a small wrench into the dream of moving somewhere that the Lexington Avenue subway line didn’t reach. I was down with “love and honor,” but “chauffeur” hadn't been part of the deal. We knew we needed more space, though, so we did the next best thing: We moved to Brooklyn.
But I still hadn’t abandoned the dream. It had expanded to running a small B&B, with an attached antiques shop. I’d spend my free time gardening, whipping up vegetarian feasts for guests and friends and going to auctions while the hubby, a skilled woodworker, would restore the furniture. (And learn to drive.)
Then two anchoring events came along: I had a child, and my sister moved up the street, with her own family. She and I have almost never lived more than two miles apart, and despite occasional evidence to the contrary, we really love being near each other. And so the country got pushed a little further away.
(MORE: Edible Front-Yard Gardens)
Putting Down Roots
When my son got into a school program that would take him through sixth grade, my mother, in a rare moment of parental authority, called to say that it was time to “stop throwing money away on rent and buy something.” Her model for “something,” mind you, was a $40,000 sprawling ranch house in Dullsville. But the argument made sense, so I began my search.
I had just two criteria: I didn’t want to leave my neighborhood, where the longtime locals conversed in Italian over fences as they tended their roses; and I needed a garden.
Friends who lived in the next block kept telling me I should look at the garden apartment in their building, which was on the market. And I kept reminding them of what Robert Frost said about fences making good neighbors. I was afraid that occupying the bottom two floors of the brownstone co-op they lived in could strain our otherwise cordial relationship.
So I did what people did back in those antediluvian days before the Internet: I checked the New York Times real estate classified ads. There were precisely two ads for garden apartments in my neighborhood, and one was out of my price range. I circled the other, and planned to visit the following Saturday.
To my surprise, and slight horror, it was the friends’ building. I was the only one visiting. Clearly the owner had never heard of “staging” an apartment — unless empty frozen dinner packages and soda cans were part of her decorating scheme.
Bette Davis’ famous line from Beyond the Forest came to mind. Every room — from the kitchen and dining room to the large downstairs family room to the two bedrooms and baths — needed work; her colors were frightening (except to fans of Pepto-Bismol); there wasn’t adequate lighting anywhere; and the garden had one lone tree, some chipped flagstones for a path, and a picnic table only Yogi Bear could love.
In other words, it was perfect. Yes, it was going to take a lot of TLC (and money) to create my vision, but it had the crucial element: a backyard.
Long story short, I bought the dump. Room by room, I fixed it up, and every year, put what little I could afford into the garden. Step one involved taking down the two towering Ailanthus trees (weeds). Then we planted a lilac bush and Rose of Sharon next to the one resident, the Japanese maple.
Two rose bushes went in, along with a bleeding heart. Hostas were rescued from a friend’s yard when her landlord went psycho and started ripping them out. When my friend Linda sold her house, we medivac'ed her daylilies into my garden, and they’ve spread into a thick mound that every June makes me think of her.
The year the songbirds came back after a brief hiatus (experts suspected changing weather patterns), they’d wake me up with their joyous chorus at the first wink of dawn. A bit early for me, but how to complain?
(MORE: Backyard Birds)
An Urban Oasis
I hired someone to help me expand the patio, and now a dozen of us can rock back and forth on slow summer nights and escape New York’s famous humidity (it’s really not the heat …) Usually, though, it’s only a friend or two, or just me and a cat, sitting in the moonglow, sipping an adult beverage, shoes off, listening to the sounds a city makes as it puts itself to sleep.
When not hot — just bothered — the garden is my escape. All it takes is planting bare feet in cool soil and a glance at the serene Buddha under the maple to put things back in perspective. Out here I remember: Life is big. My problems are small.
For years a long-distance relationship seemed like it would pull me away and land me in the country. But it didn’t. Then last summer, on a random visit Upstate, after 30 years of quiet pining, I found my dream house, with acres of extraordinary gardens, shady native trees, a solar-heated pool and a hot tub on the screened-in deck. It was everything I had ever wanted and more. I put in an offer. It was accepted. I had a buyer for my Brooklyn place before I ever posted an ad. It was finally happening.
(MORE: The Art of Shedding Possessions)
Then a funny thing happened. Even as I started to get rid of stuff and prepare to move, fantasizing about how I’d decorate, where I’d put the wine cellar and the parties I’d throw, I realized I didn’t want to leave this place. Couldn’t. I’ve lived in this apartment longer than anywhere else in my entire life, and I had no intention of moving just when I got it right.
To some people, 500 square feet isn’t much. But it’s my 500 square feet, and after 18 years, it's finally become the outdoor space I've always wanted. Here, spring starts with the intoxicating scent of lilacs; then we have roses galore. Hostas celebrate summer by shooting up purple flowers. This year, the entire garden is blooming like never before. And how could I possibly abandon Linda’s lilies?
Forgive me Upstate, but for better and for worse, Brooklyn is my home.